The day after Mother’s Day can be painful for some women. Some are dealing with disappointment over a son or daughter who never called. Some are sad that their husbands forgot the day–again.
Other women, like Jean Graham Ford, continue to navigate the ongoing pain that only a mother who has lost a child understands.
The youngest sister of Billy Graham lost her son, Sandy, in 1981 when he was just 21. “That might be one of the hardest things a parent has to go through,” Jean said in a recent interview. “It was the hardest for us at least.”
Sandy had a condition called Wolfe-Parkinson-White syndrome, which causes extra pathways in the heart that carry electrical impulses. The extra pathways can cause arrhythmia, or rapid heartbeat, at any time. After an operation, Sandy seemed to be fine. For a few years, he was. He even ran track. Shortly after his 21st birthday, Sandy went running with his roommate and arrhythmia struck. Sandy died on an operating table.
“The first thing you ask is ‘Why?’” Jean shared. “Well, of course, there’s no answer and when I get to heaven, I won’t ask that question. I won’t need to.”
She and her husband, Leighton, got through the initial shock by clinging to God’s Word. “We made a decision that night,” Jean said. “Either God is the God of the Scriptures and He is good – and I want to tell you, we did not feel He was good that night. The feelings we had did not coordinate with what we knew to be the truth of God’s Word.
“Without seeming to be pious,” she added, “God’s Word is really what got us through– depending on what He said and who He was in the Scriptures, even when we weren’t feeling that way.”
The entire family, said Jean, experienced an assortment of emotions at different times. Some would be angry. Some would be depressed. “We all handled it differently so, therefore, we had to handle each other differently. But how did we get through it? I don’t know that we’re through it yet. It’s been 28 years and my mother died in August of that year, and Sandy died in November. You expect to lose your parents. You don’t expect to lose a son.”
If your child has died recently, Jean would remind you that there are no easy answers. What you’re feeling could be entirely different from what she felt.
“But, I would encourage you that things will get better at some point. When? I don’t know. We had a psychiatrist from Harvard who was a friend of ours and he called us every Wednesday for a long time. I remember saying to him, ‘When does this go away?’ He said, ‘I don’t want to discourage you, but it won’t ever go away.’ So just knowing that the hurt is going to be part of our life really helped.”
On Mother Graham
Turning to memories of her own mother, Jean described her as “the most wonderful, Godly Christian Southern lady who had flaws. I don’t want to say she was perfect. She certainly did not have a perfect daughter or a perfect son, and she was not perfect, but her influence in our life is immeasurable.”
Jean credits her mother’s prayers as one of the main reasons Billy went into ministry. “Why did he go to Wheaton, so far away back in those days? How many years ago was that, 70? Wheaton was on the other side of the world. Nobody had ever heard of Wheaton and mother just prayed him there; the same for me.”
Mother Graham’s influence of having Scripture “open in her lap, her trust in the Lord” greatly impacted her daughter. “She went through really, really hard times in her life,” Jean added, “and to see her trust in who God is shaped me. I think we all would say that her prayers, her life was certainly influential in our lives.”
Jean quickly praised her father and his influence, too. “I asked Billy not long ago, I said, ‘Billy Frank, what do you remember about Daddy?’ and he said, ‘Oh, he was the most gentle man I ever met.’”
Billy also remembers his father as a man of prayer, said Jean, who added, “I would rather hear Daddy pray than anybody ever.” Billy agreed: “I still feel that way.”
“You can’t major on Mother without Daddy,” Jean added, “and sometimes he sort of gets left out because he died so long ago.”
On Ruth Bell Graham
There is one more mother we discussed in our time together: Ruth Bell Graham. “I spent more time with her in the early years when she was a young mother and she was absolutely wonderful,” Jean said in describing her sister-in-law.
“She was very different from my mother in personality and my mother was a very strict disciplinarian; Ruth was not that way. She was wonderful.”
Jean admired Ruth’s “great sense of humor that got her through a lot of the difficult areas they went through with Billy Frank being gone so much. She just had this wonderful gift of humor. She had a wonderful gift of poetry and she had a laugh that was contagious.”
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COVER IMAGE shows from left, Morrow Graham and her children Jean, Melvin, Billy and Catherine.